Anton Chekhov is arguably one of modern theater's most innovative playwrights. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, the Russian genius dared take on the banality of life and turn it into heartbreaking, hysterically funny theatrical poetry. Nothing was beyond the scope of his lyricism bad love, old age, foolish narcissism, even the dull ennui of another long day. Chekhov's astonishing body of work elegantly renders the pathetic human condition into delicious rants that leave audiences giggling through their tears. Uncle Vanya, now running at Infernal Bridegroom Productions' Axiom, imagines a family drowning in a pool of regret that becomes unbearably painful one dark season, when a powerful man and his beautiful wife come to visit.
Director Tamarie Cooper's show opens on Marina (Tek Wilson), a peasant nurse, and Astrov (Troy Schulze, also a Houston Press contributor), the village doctor. The two are chatting in the gardens of a country estate run by Uncle Vanya (Charlie Scott) and his 'plain' niece Sonya (Charlesanne Rabensburg). Chekhov, the master of meaningful small talk, makes it clear from the beginning that these are smart people paralyzed by the dull workaday life. The handsome doctor, who drinks too much, is needled with guilt about a patient who died on his operating table. And yet he mentions the tragedy only in passing. He spends much more time complaining about his foolish patients. He clearly believes he was intended for bigger and better things than being a backwoods doctor. As he talks, the kindly nurse sits patiently, offering him more vodka and her unceasing devotion.
This difficult opening sets the tone for the entire play. Chekhov's focus is on the ordinary. Nothing remarkable happens, which is a problem for the folks at IBP, a troupe that handles the remarkable with great skill. Their best work has been full of strange and exotic happenings: bodies burning on funeral pyres, rhinoceroses stampeding a town, actors performing under the freeway. Chekhov's Uncle Vanya has none of these oddities. The play is about the ennui of long country days and nights, but it shouldn't be boring to watch. When done right, Chekhov is anything but boring. But IBP's production is so full of the misdirected strangeness that this troupe is so famous for that the characters of Chekhov's world end come off almost catatonic. And the deep undercurrent of heart and soul that drives ordinary life the emotional vibration that makes Chekhov's work so revolutionary is lost in a multitude of strange tics, long pauses and blank stares.
In fact, the two best things about this show are the incidental music played by Jeff Miller and Anthony Barilla and the wonderfully choreographed set changes featuring stagehands dressed like peasants. Barilla sits on the edge of the stage playing his accordion with winsome sweetness, his expression channeling everything Chekhov says about heartbreak and disappointment. If Barilla were on stage more, his performance alone would be worth the time it takes to see this long show. Also charming is the side story created by the vodka-sipping stagehands, who steal sips from the bottle and argue over tiny miscommunications. These funny diversions get at the heart of Chekhov's message: The beauty and pain of life appear most elegantly in the tiniest, most common moments.
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Unfortunately, during much of the play, the actors come off as stiff and mannered. As the beautiful but bored Yelena, who gets all the countrymen into a dither when she comes visiting for a season, Lindsay Kayser seems to be sleepwalking. Staring into space with the same vapid half-smile throughout the entire production, she's so devoid of personality, it's difficult to believe that anyone especially the philosophical Vanya or the intelligent Astrov would fall in love with her.
Scott's Vanya is the most animated character on stage, but the actor clearly needs some direction. He's often left gesticulating madly while everyone else just watches him as though he were some odd bird flapping away in the distance. Not only is he left hanging, but little is done to provide visual interest on the stage. The actors are often sitting or standing in a line, and more than once they seemed not to know what to do with their hands. And the company that is usually so good with details has filled the show with disappointing anachronisms. Some of the dishes have stickers on the bottom. A gun appears late in the production, and it looks like a toy from a party store.
As unsatisfying as this production is, Chekhov's magic manages to appear in some rare moments. Rabensburg's performance as the long-suffering Sonya is absolutely perfect. Schulze finds his feet somewhere at the halfway mark and finishes the story with poignant grace. Noel Bowers, who plays the small role of a local sycophant named Waffles, is heartbreaking.
But the little pieces of this production that are successful are not, in the end, enough to recommend this show, beyond the fact that this is Chekhov, a playwright who is rarely produced, despite his unique talent.
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